Sometime last year I read ‘How to take smart notes’ (HTTSN) by Sonke Ahrens and my relationship with reading and learning hasn’t been the same since. I’ll recommend the book to anyone trying to get more out of their reading. The book introduced me to Zettelkasten, a system of managing notes created by Niklas Luhmann, a German socialist and system theorist. Thanks to this system, he was able to publish around 60 books and other publications without any assistants.
Since I’ve always been an average performer at academics, I wish they taught the Zettelkasten method in school. Having struggled with a way to make notes, engage with them, and retrieve them, I could see the merits of Zettelkasten. Therefore, after reading HTTSN I knew this is exactly what I need to take my learning to the next level (and become above average…finally :))
Though HTTSN does a good job at explaining Zettelkasten and why you need it, the book failed to provide any framework or method for setting one up. I was disappointed that the book did not even have a flowchart/diagram to explain the process visually. Anyway, I am grateful this book inspired me to set up my own Zettelkasten.
My Google search on Zettelkasten led me to helpful content, and I realized that the system is popular among academicians and writers. Moreover, the system now can be entirely digital, unlike Luhmann’s notes on index cards. I was finally learning how to set one up for myself. A couple of helpful resources were:
1. Digital Zettelkasten by David Kadavy
2. Official looking Zettelkasten Website
3. Zettelkasten Note-Taking: YouTube Video
After spending days in the the Zettelkasten rabbit-hole, I learnt that the technique has become the foundation for ‘Personal Knowledge Management’ (PKM) system. PKM or Second Brain is gaining popularity in the last couple of years. It isn’t just limited to academicians and writers anymore! We are living in the information age and PKM could help make sense of the information important to us. With a PKM we can reduce the overwhelm and anxiety associated with the oversupply of information, and replace it with meaningful connections. These connections could improve comprehension, and make us better thinkers.
The more I read, the more I wanted to set up my own PKM system. I also found that most ‘creators’ online are using their PKMs to ship content. For example, see this Ali Abdaal video.
After my research online, I got a better idea of what my PKM system should be like. I tried a couple of apps to see which is the best tool for my PKM system. Both Notion and Ulysses are great tools, but they didn’t work well for my use case. I’ll still say Ulysses is better than Notion though 🙂
So what is the best tool for my PKM?
A lot of people use Roam and RemNote for their PKM systems. I spent some times looking at them, but found them too academic. Neither I’m a PhD student, nor a writer, I wanted something simpler and adaptable (and secure). This clarity led me to Obsidian and I was blown away by what I saw:
- Free Tool
- .md files
- 100% Secure
- Massive passionate community
- Indie Developers (Canadian yayy)
It was love at first sight, pretty much.
Starting with Obsidian
What’s the best way to learn a tool? Courses and tutorials of course. I did the following three courses to start my Obsidian journey:
- The Sweet Setup Obsidian course
- Curtis McHale Course
- Nick Milo’s Obsidian beginner videos on YouTube. Nick later released an Obsidian course, but I didn’t purchase it.
Yeah, that’s what my Obsidian vault with my PKM is called. I saw this video to get started, along with other Obsidian specific tutorials. For a couple of weeks, I added notes regularly, used bi-directional linking and experienced some of the benefits mentioned in HTTSN. After a couple of months, I could see why this is the most transformative learning system…ever.
As my notes started to add up, I was making connections and often having aha moments. At the same time, I was also realizing my system isn’t scalable. I had only around 50 notes but could see that poor organization might ruin this beautiful ‘mind dojo’ I’ve created.
Linking Your Thinking (LYT)
Nick Milo’s YouTube channel was a key contributor in my Obsidian learning . Besides the beginner Obsidian series Nick also shares PKM videos from his Linking Your Thinking (LYT) workshops . I watched many of those videos but didn’t feel the need for LYT workshop when I started out. However, as it became apparent that my PKM might soon run into scaling issues, I signed up for the course waitlist.
Making it to LYT Workshop, Cohort 7
LYT Workshop, Cohort 7 opened earlier this year on Jan 9th. The price for LYT workshop, was around CAD 1500! The cost was definitely a barrier, therefore I applied for the program scholarship. I’m grateful to have granted the scholarship from the LYT team (thank you guys), that’s how I made it to cohort 7! I was so excited to receive the conformation and to learn ‘Linking Your Thinking’.
My LYT Workshop Experience
The cohort was around 200 students. This was further divided into crews, with every crew led by a crew guide. Having taken so many online courses in the last couple of years, I was amazed at how well organized this course was. From live sessions to the discussions, everything was so seamless. The community was the highlight for me, and I did learn a lot from my peers.
I enjoyed every moment of the LYT Workshop, despite it being overwhelming sometimes. I wouldn’t recommend this workshop to a complete beginner though, one should have a basic PKM setup with several permanent notes. My key learning from the course would be:
- One needs to be intentional about what goes inside the PKM. Curating Mindfully, is the mantra.
- PKM system is a living organism; it grows with you. And therefore, future proofing becomes critical.
- Every PKM is different, and the structure is determined by the user’s goals.
- PKM system is tool agnostic. That being said, I noticed most students in the course used Obsidian.
- The PKM experience and aesthetics matter, because you’d want to spend hours inside. Watch out for cognitive overload, it can take away the joy.
Setting up my PKM system
I’ve spent some time rethinking how can I improve my PKM system using the insights from workshop. My vision is to become a content-creator from a content consumer. Therefore, my PKM goal would be spending more time in ‘idea emergence’. And to make that happen I need to make notes and connections inside the PKM consistently, and ensure the system is future-proof. Here’s how I’ll be working on my PKM going forward:
- Status Tags: I didn’t use any tags in my PKM before the workshop. My notes were growing and tags would’ve been helpful. But, I didn’t want to overwhelm myself with managing all the tags. The ‘status tags’ from the workshop however, really spoke to me. Powered with Obsidian’s ‘nested tags’ and Dataview plugin I’ve discovered a great way to organize and interact with my notes.
- Map of Content (MOCs) — MOCs often appear on Nick’s YouTube channel, so the concept wasn’t knew to me. The YouTube videos helped me get the big picture, but I’ve never made an MOC before the course. Creating the MOCs with the cohort gave me a deeper understanding of the process. I’ve only made a couple of MOCs, and I’m amazed how they supercharge idea generation. I intend to create more of them in the future.
- The PKM Mindset: The PKM mindset is that of a gardener, and in this garden notes are nurtured and grown. Someone in the course community shared this wonderful article explaining the concept of ‘digital garden’. This is a mindset shift, from just making notes to mindfully growing notes. My PKM however, isn’t a garden but a cafe. Therefore, instead of the ‘seedling-budding-evergreen’, I’ll be using ‘Cherry-Bean-Blend’ status tags 🙂
- More Development time — Most of my time has been spent on reading/idea collecting (from books, blogs, NYT, podcasts, etc) but not as much in idea development (making notes inside the PKM). This needs to change. Going forward I’ll be spending more time in the development phase to get those neurons firing.
- PKM Time — Last but not the least, every PKM system needs commitment. My goal would be to start spending at-least 30 minutes every morning in my Zetsidian. Nick’s idea of a ‘I want to…’ note will be helpful in making the PKM time more intentional.
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